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Reconstructing Our Perception of Documentary: A Response to Caouette’s Tarnation

tgarber's picture

Reconstructing Our Perception of Documentary: A Response to Caouette’s Tarnation

         Tarnation is a very introspective documentary that details the life of Jonathan Caouette and his relationship with his family, specifically his mentally ill mother Renee. The documentary is filled with Jonathan’s candid displays of his emotional strife throughout his entire childhood.

         Not only did Jonathan use this documentary to bare his own turmoil, but he also exposed his mother Renee’s tumultuous life and struggle with mental illness. Many viewers of Tarnation who rated and commented on the documentary on felt that this documentary did little to explain mental illness and how treatments for mental illness are detrimental to the well being of the patient. Many responded that the documentary was “self indulgent” and because of that, the film lacked depth.


The growing trend of objection towards Tarnation made me question the expectations of the audience. Caouette, in my opinion, made this documentary in the form of a diary, a sort of tell all film. The documentary was meant to be autobiographical and explore Jonathan’s inner thoughts while he experienced childhood and dealt with his family. Many people attacked the work because of this aspect of the film and because they had different expectations for a documentary. Netflix users dismissed the validity and purpose of the documentary because it was not in the form that they were used to.   

Typically, documentaries are used to inform viewers of the visible reality that we are normally exposed to in all forms of media. Tarnation is different in that respect. Jonathan not only delves into the visible realities that he faced, but also an internal reality. The documentary shows a more emotional and interior journey. His film exposes his internal self and his mental construction. He wanted viewers to experience what was going on in his stream of conscience and what he was thinking.

Image- Jonathan




Tarnation 1




Tarnation 2  









These viewers were watching this documentary with preconceived notions of what a true documentary should be, without realizing that our notion of documentary can be reconstructed. When viewing Tarnation in a different perspective apart from the traditional English lesson of the narrative structure, Tarnation presents vivid descriptions of his mental state that become increasingly valuable to the viewer when drawing a perspective of Jonathan and his life than would a traditional autobiographical documentary of his external reality and conditions. Caouette uses amateur home videos that he had been filming throughout his life time where he screams at the screens and shows emotional disturbances as he pulls his hair and cries. These types of scenes are typical throughout the film. He also uses “dark” music to emphasis his emotions while using flashes of images and videos of “dark” scenes to show pain, anger, or other emotions.


As seen in this scene:


When seeing Tarnation in a different perspective (as a documentary that exposes internal reality), viewers gain a deeper sense of the film. The film is not informative in the traditional facets that we view a film (Documentary defined in the OED as: A work, such as a film or television program, presenting political, social, or historical subject matter in a factual and informative manner and often consisting of actual news films or interviews accompanied by narration). It exposes realities that are not often exposed in documentary film.

Alike this change of perspective from external to internal reality, different perspectives of this film should also be explored. With these different perspectives, new forms of documentary can be incorporated into the genre that can provide the public with a different view of the world: not only what is going on in the outward environment, but also in the mind, and other ways. By looking at documentary through a new lens and with an open perspective, this can make way for an entire shift of the way we view traditional documentary.          


























Anne Dalke's picture

On deeper realism

kudos, first, for your use of images and active links; they ground and anchor your prose very effectively, adding important visual dimensions to your focus, here, on Caouette's inner life. Setting the paper up w/ some negative reviews of the film also motivates your argument in a good way.

My further thoughts have to do w/ where "else" this paper might go: in your description of Caouette's expose of his mother's life, I hear echoes of the discussion we had in our class of whether Alison Bechdel had the "right" to expose her father's secrets in her graphic autobiography, Fun Home (where do you land in that debate?).

In your description of the ways in which the film documents Caouette's inner life, I also hear echoes of Virginia Woolf's famous 1923 article attacking the "shallow realism" of writers like Arnold Bennett, and advocating a more "internal approach" to literature--one, presumably, where the realism goes "deeper."

So then, and most importantly, I find myself wanting to know what you think a focus on representing what's happening "on the inside" does to our discussion, in this course, of the genre of non-fictional prose. If "there is no reality but your own" (as one of the students in my ESem cluster said this week), and those inner worlds find expression in film or narrative, what do such forms 'do' to the category of non-fiction? Is it still intact? How so?

tgarber's picture

 I couldn't fix the format on

 I couldn't fix the format on the side where the words are beside the picture. I apologize.